Looking for Climate Change Believers? Start in America

Over half of Americans believe extreme weather will likely cause a natural disaster in their community in the coming year.

This is what climate change in America looks like. A home destroyed during the landfall of Superstorm Sandy is pictured in Mantoloking, New Jersey, on March 22, 2013. The Jersey shore, a 127-mile stretch of beaches, small communities and kitschy icons, remains largely in shambles. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)


May 7, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Furious wildfires in California, massive droughts across the Plains states, and flooding in the Midwest. All are happening right now, earlier and more dangerously than any time in recent history. All are examples of climate change in America.

A pair of brand-new reports from Yale University show that the ways Americans perceive these threats varies, especially regarding both the causes and severity.

In Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication concludes that for the first time a clear majority of Americans—six out of 10—believe that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”

Clearly this runs counter to the climate change deniers who strongly suggest that a warming planet is just nature taking its course, without any influence from man.

The investigation delves deeper into the American psyche regarding the new frequency of superstorms and just how different or bad weather in their neighborhood has become in recent years.

According to the report:

—Many Americans believe global warming made recent extreme weather and climatic events “more severe,” specifically: 2012 as the warmest year on record in the United States (50 percent); the ongoing drought in the Midwest and the Great Plains (49 percent); and Superstorm Sandy (46 percent).

—About two out of three Americans say weather in the U.S. has been worse over the past several years, up 12 percentage points since spring 2012. By contrast, fewer Americans say weather has been getting better over the past several years. Only one in ten (11 percent), down 16 points compared to a year ago

—Fifty-one percent of Americans now say the weather in their local area has been worse over the past several years.

—Over half of Americans (54 percent) believe it is “very” or “somewhat likely” that extreme weather will cause a natural disaster in their community in the coming year.

—Overall, 85 percent of Americans report that they experienced one or more types of extreme weather in the past year, most often citing extreme high winds (60 percent) and extreme heat (51 percent).

A linked study, Global Warming’s Six Americas, from a team of investigators with the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, has identified and labeled a half-dozen distinct classifications for the way Americans perceive the relationship between climate change and extreme weather.

1) Alarmed (16 percent). Very certain that global warming is occurring, understand that it is human caused and harmful and strongly support societal action to reduce the threat.

2) Concerned (29 percent). Nearly one-third of Americans are certain that global warming is occurring, harmful and human-caused. They tend to view global warming as a threat to other nations and future generations, but not as a personal threat or necessarily a threat to their community.

3) Cautious (25 percent). They believe that climate change is real, but are not certain, and many are uncertain about what causes it.

4) Disengaged (9 percent) Have given global warming little to no thought, and have no strongly held beliefs about global warming.

5) Doubtful (13 percent). Are uncertain whether global warming is occurring or not, but believe that if it is happening, it is attributable to natural causes, not human activities.

6) Dismissive (8 percent). Are very certain global warming is not occurring and regard the issue as a hoax, and thus are strongly opposed to any action to reduce the threat.

The Six Americas were first identified in 2008; the most recent survey, taken in September 2012, shows that the Alarmed, Concerned and Cautious segments of the audience comprise about 70 percent of Americans.

Most importantly for those who make the link between global warming and extreme weather, the number of people surveyed who now qualify as alarmed has grown significantly, while the number of those considered dismissive has declined.

Reality is obviously catching up with the majority of Americans.